Celtic Reconstructionism

by Helen Graham

Celtic Reconstuctionism: this is the attempt to use archaeological data, records of the time and known history in order to reconstruct ancient Celtic beliefs and practices, to be followed as a religion or spirituality today. This practitioner wishes to resurrect ancient Celtic religion.

Celtic Revivalism: this is an attempt to practise a Celtic religion or spirituality within the context of the modern world, often cherry-picking the 'best bits' of ancient belief and merging it with traditions that are not Celtic. This practitioner wishes to embrace the (perceived) spirit of ancient Celtic religion.

While both Paths are valid, the relationship between Revivalists and Reconstructionists is often uneasy; when one believes in a given Path, one also acquires the solid belief that he is right (after all, who would follow a religion that he believes is false?) but having had contact with groups of each type, it seems that they are increasingly determined to deny the value they could be to one another; and indeed are reluctant to impartially examine each other's arguments or knowledge. (Please note that while this seems to reflect the majority, it does not reflect the entirety - there are open-minded Reconstructionists and Revivalists, both.)

Although OBOD has a Revivalist outlook, which is more suitable for a modern age in many ways, there is the argument that many Celtic Revivalists ignore Celtic Reconstructionism altogether and in doing so, deny themselves a rich source of knowledge, wisdom and understanding of the Celtic Way. There are many reasons the Revivalist does this; certainly Reconstructionism can be far more difficult to understand in itself, and it does take a good knowledge of history to truly comprehend the relevance of some practices and beliefs or a willingness to find out. Not everybody has time or inclination to study history to such a level and this leads to the next problem - that of separating which parts of history are to be relied on, and which are not. Besides, not every practice the ancient Celts had would be appropriate to a modern following, and vice versa. Many Pagans (most, even) are vegetarian, but it is certain that our ancient ancestors were not, and it is not possible to so strictly follow ancient practice if one makes a choice based on more modern morality.

Many of the Revivalists encountered feel that Reconstructionism is too difficult for them, and that Reconstructionists themselves are elitist and unhelpful. While this is true to a certain degree - it does not apply to all Reconstructionists; many are willing to help so long as those who need or want the help trouble themselves to ask, and in response to the accusation of elitism - lack of knowledge is generally treated sympathetically, it is incorrect knowledge that receives a tart reply. Many Reconstructionists feel that Revivalists are lazy; that they want an easy way to 'pretend to be Celtic' without going to the inconvenience that a 'true' Path involves. Again; not quite true - some Revivalists, it has to be said, do suffer from the idleness they are accused of, but others simply lack confidence in their own intelligence and may surprise themselves if they flexed these muscles more often. Further, there can be something of a lack of understanding in Reconstructionists; not everybody has the time, the space and/or the financial resources required to erect a stone circle, build a sweat lodge or grow their own vegetables - those in rented accommodation seldom do!

In addition, study itself can be confusing for some; it is often forgotten that age does not confer authenticity; that people throughout history were just as capable of lying as we are today. Because the Celts had an oral tradition, their knowledge was never committed to a permanent medium; even their stories were only committed to paper hundreds, if not thousands of years later by Christian monks who would not be dedicated to putting across decidedly pagan values. Much of the Roman writings were propaganda - the Celts were their enemies and it would be a rare diarist who is content for his or her readers to find sympathy with the enemy! People who do take the time to explore these first-hand documents and writings and later discover that they were not entirely accurate are subsequently likely to find the process of research rather off-putting.

A prime example of such deception is Pliny's insistence that the Romans repressed the Druids because they were outraged at their practice of human sacrifice; a strange point of view for a culture who would drag prisoners through the streets of their Capital City tied behind a chariot, and ritually strangle them in tribute to the War God, Mars. This very fate befell Vercingetorix, the famous leader of Celtic resistance to Caesar in Gaul. It is doubtful that the Romans truly felt the disgust expressed in their literature. While most ancient cultures practiced human sacrifice, and the belief is widely held that the Celts did, there is no solid archaeological evidence for this, as yet.

Another misunderstanding is that Celtic Reconstructionists intended to practice in an entirely authentic way. Were the procedures and methods of human sacrifice to be discovered, it is doubtful that there would be a sudden spate of Reconstructionists finding victims to offer to the gods; there are no more Reconstructionists than Revivalists who would be eager to commit murder. Neither are there many Reconstructionists who take hallucinogens in order to enhance their practice, as the ancient Druids did. While it is true that Reconstructionists consider it vital for a follower to learn a Celtic language, something else that many cannot find the money, time or talent to accomplish - especially those who take on this endeavour alone - it is very difficult to learn a language when you cannot practice or hold a conversation with another student or speaker. This alone puts many people off following a wholly Reconstructionist path.

Turning to a valid criticism Reconstructionists often have about Revivalists is based on the sad truth that much modern literature can be misleading. It is oft ignored that the principle purpose of a publishing company is not to offer knowledge to its audience, but to make money. There is many a volume out there with the word 'Celtic' prominently displayed in the title that bears little relation to real historical data, is badly or not referenced at all and which certainly doesn't offer genuine information about Celtic culture. Unfortunately, these books are generally Revivalist in nature, and there is nothing to guide the beginner in deciding what is genuine and what is the author's fantasy view of the ancient Celts. Many of these authors have a convincing writing style.

Examples of the things I have read in such volumes include the suggestion that all Celts could play the harp (most Celts could not afford a harp!) and that women had a total right of divorce (which she did under some circumstances - but these circumstances were prescribed by law, her right was not automatic as implied). The disabled had equal rights in society and handicap was no barrier to social position; another fallacy - a maimed king (eg Nuada) had to step down and while the disabled did receive a kind of 'social benefit', they could not embody any sort of divinity, as one must be of 'perfect form' to do so, according to Celtic Lore. I have seen the Oghams 'revealed' as the way in which the Druids wrote down their secret knowledge, which is waiting to be, or in some cases has already been, discovered and the alphabet based on the work of Robert Graves put forward as the one used. There are few examples of Ogham writing, and too little is known for a like-for-like alphabet to be readily available today. And one of the worst was a book entitled the 'Celtic Runes' which was actually about the Norse Runes. The most ludicrous is the firm (but often repeated) declaration that the ancient Celts came direct to Ireland and Britain from Atlantis - not the Indo-European continent, as is agreed upon by most Celtic scholars. (Incidentally, many who subscribe to the Atlantean theory are also inclined to say that it was either a tribe of Celts who settled in Scandinavia or a Celtic tribe passing through who taught the Runes to the Vikings; again - there is no evidence to support this theory).

Many of these books might be 'spiritually sound' - that is, they offer a feel of Celtic culture in a way that a modern follower would respond to, understand and accept, and they are not necessarily devoid of spiritual wisdom - but it can also be off-putting when such a practitioner decides to look at the historical information more objectively, and find that his favourite authors appear to be deluded, at best, and to have lied, at worst.

Having asked Reconstructionists about their path, and why Reconstruction above Revival, one of the strongest themes to emerge was a strong desire to follow a true path as opposed to one based on fantasy. One spoke of the 'Disney / Shakespearean taint... [which] infuses much of the 'popular' Celtic culture, (eg, fairies)' and since even the word 'fairy' did not exist before the twelfth century (first appearing in French medieval literature as a trickster archetype in fiction), it is easy to sympathise with this viewpoint. Another Reconstructionist pointed out that a heavy veneer has been painted over genuine Celtic culture and history which obscures much of the true nature of the ancient Celts. This has been added to through the ages, from writers such as the Messrs Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to modern film makers, making it appear that the Celts are a fantasy race, more at home in Lord of the Rings than a real peoples who originated in the world we live in.

The Reconstructionist viewpoint is often based on a distaste for the inaccuracies and misleading atmosphere that has been woven around the Celts in the New Age. When Revivalist writers ignore undisputed fact (such as the Runes being Norse in origin and the Celts being Indo-European rather than Atlantean), it does put Revivalism as a whole in a poor light. This is a great shame; the principles adopted and perpetuated by Revivalists; even those which are not necessarily Celtic in origin, still have significant spiritual value and contain wisdom. It is short-sighted to ignore them merely because they did not originate with the Celts, but deceptive to pretend that they did. Is the Dalai Lama unwise because he is Buddhist, not Celtic, and therefore should his wisdom be dismissed by a Celtic audience? Should valuable aspects of shamanism that have become accepted parts of Druidry be rejected because a practice originated in Scandinavia or pre-colonial America and not Ireland or Wales? What of Pythagoras or Galileo and other great visionaries? The Celts did not have a monopoly on wisdom 2000 years ago, and nor do they today.

It would do the Revivalist a world of good to know some genuine history before deciding whether his own path is going to favour or combine Revivalism or Reconstructionism; three recommendations that will guide any through the minefield of bad history on offer are 'a Brief History of the Celts' and 'a Brief History of the Druids', both by Peter Beresford Ellis and 'the Celtic Revolution' by Simon Young. These are excellent history books for anybody interested in Celtic culture, who doesn't wish to be overwhelmed by high-brow (and often unintelligible) language of many other volumes. Neither are they pretentious; if a fact is not known for sure, then they say so clearly and present the evidence for the individual to judge.

A resource that might be considered invaluable to both Reconstructionists and Revivalists is Alexei Kondratiev's Lorekeeper's course. This is available here

(Although I have been assured it is not necessary, credit for the availability of this must go to Tearlach Luder. He put in a great deal of effort to have this material made available after the sudden death of Alexei Kondratiev, and ensured it's completion as Mr Kondratiev was still compiling this course when he died).

This course is as accessible to the layman as to the long-standing student of Celtic History and Lore; not only does it provide a clear summary of history (section 1) and languages (section 2), but it refers the reader to other sources and makes suggestions for further study. Section 3 is concerned with the pre-Christian religion of the ancient Celts, and takes data from several sources, including archaeology, classical writings and comparative religion. In short - no stone is left unturned. I cannot recommend this course highly enough.

On a personal note, I put forward the arguments for Celtic Reconstructionism, because I perceive my audience in OBOD to be chiefly Revivalist. I, myself, am far more Revivalist than I am Reconstuctionist because there are elements of the ancient Celtic cultures that I don't like, don't agree with or simply don't understand clearly enough to make a fair judgement. I am also content to give credence to knowledge and wisdom that are not necessarily Celtic in origin and I knew about the Norse Runes long before I took up an interest in my Celtic heritage. However, I greatly admire the Reconstructionist path and consider it wise to keep up with new developments in this quarter, as it would be easy to float off into a New Age fantasy of a perceived ideal and not actual Celtic culture.

In modern parlance, Reconstructionism 'keeps it real'. The ancient Celts were not all docile, tree-hugging farmers who meant no harm to any and whose only goals were the advancement of the community; neither were they demented, blue-painted berserkers intent on the destruction of anything non-Celtic. They had their flaws: including considerable in-fighting between tribes, and they had their strengths: greater equality than many cultures, an advanced technological understanding of metal working and great creativity in their songs and stories. Like any other ancient culture; the Celts were a mixture of the admirable and shameful.

And on the flip side, there are some Reconstructionists, (although they may deny this in public forums) who began by picking up a book that was Revivalist in nature. Certainly the Reconstructionist path would not be so heavily populated, nor do I think interest would be so fervently maintained, if the Revivalists were not continuing to show an interest in Celtic culture as they are. As a believer in the individual's right to freedom of worship, I respect both these paths, and would like to see a better relationship between them; they have a great deal to offer each other once the differences can be put aside.